If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.
- Bishop Desmond Tutu
It is impossible to avoid news stories about bullying these days. It is beyond alarming to read article after article of students experiencing painful verbal or physical bullying, and at its worst, have lead students to take their own lives. Bullying is a topic on talk shows, plot lines for television shows, movies, and books. It is a pervasive, troubling issue plaguing our young people, affecting social development and academic achievement.
What is bullying? Though definitions of bullying vary from source to source, generally agreed upon characteristics include that bullying is the repeated interaction between individuals with the intention to cause physical or emotional harm where the bully is physically, socially, or psychologically more powerful than the victim. Bullying often takes aim at race, religion, and sexual orientation. Bullying can take several forms:
- Verbal: name-calling, teasing, taunting, threats
- Social: spreading rumors, leaving people out on purpose, breaking up friendships
- Physical: hitting, punching, shoving
- Cyberbullying: using the Internet, cell phones, or other digital technologies to harm others
As a teacher, it can be very difficult to know what to do about this issue. It takes a lot of time to sort out what happens between students, teachers often worry about drawing more attention to a situation, and they aren't sure how to handle the situation. What we do know, however, is that doing nothing is not the answer. In a survey of more than 13,000 students in grades 5-12 during the 2009-2010 academic year by the Youth Voice Project students indicated that when adults ignored what was going on, told bullied youth to stop tattling, or told them to solve the problem themselves, the situation often got worse not better. From these students, we learn that the least effective method of stopping the bullying was trying to handle it themselves and the most effective was when they asked friends and adults for help. From adults, support, encouragement, and vigilance were most likely to lead to a positive outcome for the students.
So what can you do?
- Communicate classroom expectations clearly and follow through on classroom policies.
- Ask students about bullying. When you work on building relationships with students and show an interest in their lives, you become an ally for students to go to when bullying occurs.
- Make it easier for students to report bullying incidents. Have a suggestion box and/or survey students regularly. And then respond immediately.
- Observe students in their peer relationships. Know who students are friends with and who their friends are, whom they dislike, whom they view as popular and unpopular.
- When students come to you with a concern, follow up with them in an ongoing way.
- Build relationships with parents and communicate regularly with parents of students experiencing bullying.
- Model respect.
- Recruit peer volunteers to support victims of bullying.
- Keep records of incidents, report incidents to the appropriate staff at school, and know the school policies.
What kinds of bullying have you witnessed? What have you done to support students dealing with bullying?
September, 2011 issue of Educational Leadership, "Promoting Respectful Schools."